15May

Guns N’ Roses’s Original Bassist Duff McKagan On What It Means To Rock On

Originally published in Forbes.

“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all” goes the Bon Jovi song “Wanted Dead or Alive.” According to original Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, that line haunts many musicians. Did Bon Jovi really rock them all? Do they rock them all?

It’s likely that a few people are disappointed on any given night, McKagan acknowledges in his new book, How to be a Man and Other Illusions. Maybe some significant others who tagged along. Or parents. Or curious friends who took up an offer for a free ticket. How many people do you need to rock to consider the show a good one? “I’ve seen 48,000 faces, and I rocked close to 41,000 of them,” is more a realistic assessment of a good night, writes McKagan, but it doesn’t sound as poetic.

The bigger issue at stake—and a theme in McKagan’s two books—is what does success mean. For McKagan, the question has to do not just with whether a show has gone well, but how does someone build a successful life after being in one of the biggest bands of all time? At the age of thirty, McKagan was twice divorced, deep in addiction, and recovering from an acute case of pancreatitis.

More than twenty years after this low point, he has gained some wisdom about what constitutes success in life. “Success to me initially was just being in a band where everybody was on the same page and everybody was good and had the same drive,” he told me. “The teamwork involved and what you have to let go ego-wise for the thing to function as a band, it’s like a ballet, an emotional ballet, egotistical ballet and songwriting ballet.” McKagan had been in several bands before Guns N’ Roses, and finding a band that worked well together and created music that people enjoyed seemed like success enough. At first.

Duff McKagan. Photo credit: Scott Uchida.

Duff McKagan. Photo credit: Scott Uchida.

“Then you get into financial success and how can this band sustain itself,” he continued. “A band is a small business, and you take on employees. You have a crew, a tour manager, riggers and sound guys and truck drivers, caterers. I could go on. You’re dealing with local parking receipts and concessions and merch, and all this stuff.”

After Guns N’ Roses became a business, it became harder to sustain the egoless ballet that made it work in the beginning. Once he was out of the band, McKagan rediscovered egolessness through a martial arts practice.

“What I found writing the book is that obviously life is not a static thing,” he said. “It’s constant change and evolution. I was really fortunate to be able to find martial arts. The ego that I gained from my band was huge. ‘I’m playing stadiums, I’m really funny and good looking, you know.’ We all have successes in our lives. Mine was public, but we all have those successes and then we have moments that take us back down. Martial arts has evened out all those peaks and valleys.”

Finding humility and perspective through martial arts echoes the experience of other musicians who took spiritual paths away from self-destruction. As rapper M.I.A. said in a talk at the Red Bull Music Academy, musicians face three possible outcomes: they become drug addicts, they go crazy, or they become spiritual. The spiritual path offers not only self-preservation, but also discipline and creativity. This is why many musicians, including producer Rick Rubin, are avid practitioners and advocates of meditation.

For McKagan, rock n’ roll itself is another path toward personal growth. He includes in his book a list of 100 albums that were personally meaningful to him. Certain live shows he attended as a young man shaped who he is “and taught me how to be a person,” he said. Rock n’ roll, to him, is about authenticity and realness. “I grew up in a great time when this really genuine earnest punk rock was happening, like Black Flag and The Clash. It was so genuine and honest and no frill,” he said. “The way the music came across to the audience was inclusive and honest and guttural.”

In 1979 he was at a Clash show in which a security guy punched somebody in the front row and broke his nose. “The Clash stopped the show and tore down the wooden barrier. They said, ‘There is no difference between the audience and us we’re all in this together, don’t hurt our audience.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re all in this together!’ That honesty and egoless really taught me a lot of things about life.”

Today, Duff McKagan keeps busy as a financial and sports writer, performing musician (including, occasionally, with members of his old band Guns N’ Roses), and involved father of two teenage girls.

Now in his fifties, he claims that rock n’ roll keeps him young and helps maintain his drive. “Rock and roll keeps you in the moment,” McKagan says . “It’s really great to see these bands like Aerosmith and the Rollings Stones, bands that are longer in the tooth but still doing it. I respect those guys. In England, they knight those guys. Here in America, we call it classic rock and it’s on some station. But man,” he adds, “It makes me think I better get busy, I better get started!”

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